On Friday, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to keep its observer mission in Syria for a "final" 30 days.
The move keeps alive – if only just – a key part of international envoy Kofi Annan's faltering plan to end the 16-month conflict that has killed thousands of people.
But as US ambassador Susan Rice pointed out yesterday, it is unlikely the violence in Syria will ease enough to allow a continued UN presence.
It would be encouraging to think that foreign diplomacy surrounding the conflict, rather than the rebels fighting within Syria, will determine what the endgame looks like. But the plain truth so far is that international diplomacy has been found wanting over Syria, not least when faced with the political obduracy of its key allies, Russia and China. That said, Moscow must now see that President Bashar al-Assad's regime is a busted flush. In the last few months and weeks there have been too many defections, arrests and assassinations for any regime member to be certain of his or her future with the Assads.
Inevitably, with this loss of certainty comes the loss of unity. Recognising this, the Kremlin has been more coy of late, refraining from dropping support for the Syrian regime altogether yet signalling it is ready to deal with alternatives. Put another way, Moscow will not want to miss an opportunity to be a player in any transition of power within Syria, a country that has been its Middle East bulwark for decades. It is not alone in this manoeuvring, of course.
Among all the foreign stakeholders in Syria, we can expect a scramble to protect their interests and emerge from the country's growing chaos with some degree of leverage. Iran, perhaps the country with the most to lose, is becoming desperate to secure a position at the negotiating table over the impending Syrian transition. Israel will prepare for the worst, and is closely monitoring Hezbollah in Lebanon for fear that Assad's regime in its dying throes might pass on some of its chemical weapons arsenal to its militant Shi'a Islamic proxy. Britain, the United States, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and France, in turn, will all be trying to create an alternative regime in Syria that will ensure their interests against Iran.
Critical as all these geopolitical components are, for the moment it is the men with the guns inside Syria itself who are shaping the outcome. That their degradation of the Assad regime is fast outpacing any diplomatic initiatives or real planning for a transition of power is perhaps the greatest cause for concern. Remember Iraq?
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